Charles Dickens, Great Expectations: Ch. 4

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Chapter IV

I fully expected to find a Constable in the kitchen, waiting to take me up. But not only was there no Constable there, but no discovery had yet been made of the robbery. Mrs. Joe was prodigiouslyw busy in getting the house ready for the festivities of the day, and Joe had been put upon the kitchen doorstep to keep him out of the dust-pan,—an article into which his destiny always led him, sooner or later, when my sister was vigorously reaping the floors of her establishment.

"And where the deuce ha' you been?" was Mrs. Joe's Christmas salutation, when I and my conscienced showed ourselves.

I said I had been down to hear the Carols. "Ah! well!" observed Mrs. Joe. "You might ha' done worse." Not a doubt of that I thought.

"Perhaps if I warn't a blacksmith's wife, and (what's the same thing) a slave with her apron never off, I should have been to hear the Carols," said Mrs. Joe. "I'm rather partial to Carols, myself, and that's the best of reasons for my never hearing any."

Joe, who had ventured into the kitchen after me as the dustpan had retired before us, drew the back of his hand across his nose with a conciliatory air, when Mrs. Joe darted a look at him, and, when her eyes were withdrawn, secretly crossed his two forefingers, and exhibited them to me, as our token that Mrs. Joe was in a cross temper. This was so much her normal state, that Joe and I would often, for weeks together, be, as to our fingers, like monumental Crusadersh as to their legs.

We were to have a superb dinner, consisting of a leg of pickled pork and greens, and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsome mince-pie had been made yesterday morning (which accounted for the mincemeat not being missed), and the pudding was already on the boil. These extensive arrangements occasioned us to be cut off unceremoniously in respect of breakfast; "for I ain't," said Mrs. Joe,—"I ain't a going to have no formal cramming and busting and washing up now, with what I've got before me, I promise you!"

So, we had our slices served out, as if we were two thousand troops on a forced march instead of a man and boy at home; and we took gulps of milk and water, with apologetic countenances, from a jug on the dresser. In the meantime, Mrs. Joe put clean white curtains up, and tacked a new flowered flounce across the wide chimney to replace the old one, and uncovered the little state parlor across the passage, which was never uncovered at any other time, but passed the rest of the year in a cool haze of silver paper,h which even extended to the four little white crockery poodles on the mantel-shelf, each with a black nose and a basket of flowers in his mouth, and each the counterpart of the other. Mrs. Joe was a very clean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, and some people do the same by their religion.

My sister, having so much to do, was going to church vicariously,w that is to say, Joe and I were going. In his working—clothes, Joe was a well-knit characteristic-looking blacksmith; in his holiday clothes, he was more like a scarecrow in good circumstances, than anything else. Nothing that he wore then fitted him or seemed to belong to him; and everything that he wore then grazedw him. On the present festive occasion he emerged from his room, when the blithe bells were going, the picture of misery, in a full suit of Sunday penitentials. As to me, I think my sister must have had some general idea that I was a young offender whom an Accoucheur Policemanw had taken up (on my birthday) and delivered over to her, to be dealt with according to the outraged majesty of the law. I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality,d and against the dissuading arguments of my best friends. Even when I was taken to have a new suit of clothes, the tailor had orders to make them like a kind of Reformatory,h and on no account to let me have the free use of my limbs.

X [w] prodigiously

Dickens enjoys the word, which comes from prodigy, meaning originally an extraordinary event, something so astonishing as to be taken for an omen. Over time the sense of the marvelous and ominous dissipated, and what remained was something of extraordinary size or remarkable energy, though that could include something monstrous or freakish. 

X [d] I and my conscience

Writing & Reading

Pip's conscience becomes the second and most omnipresent of his young tormentors. 

X [h] monumental Crusaders

Religion

The assumption was that those knights depicted on sarcophagi (hence "monumental") had been Crusaders if their legs were crossed.

X [h] silver paper,

Presumably some sort of decorative covering, but I've not been able to find an account.

X [w] vicariously,

Taking the place of, substituting for. The noun "vicar" in Anglicanism describes the representative of God on earth. 

X [w] grazed

Abraded.

X [w] Accoucheur Policeman

A male midwife or obstetrician.

X [d] as if I had insisted on being born in opposit…

Writing & Reading

Pip intimates he would not have chosen to be born. "Religion," with its emphasis upon original sin, offers no inviting prospect; morality, such as Mrs. Joe's, is intolerant and brutal; "reason," reviewing the hostile conditions, may very well decide to pass on the opportunity. The statement invites us to reflect on the circumstances of vast numbers of those among the poor in England who resemble or are far worse of than Pip. 

 

X [h] Reformatory,

Education

A prison for juvenile lawbreakers. We don't know how old Pip is when writing his autobiography, but, given that he was born about 1800, he is likely in his fifties, for Parliament passed the Reformatory Schools Act in 1854.